Angela Davis and Julien Wilson make “beautiful, creative, conversational, cooperative music”

When it comes to Angela Davis and Julien Wilson, I’m not objective. In fact, I’m the complete opposite, I’m as biased as it can get, because these two are probably my favourite saxophonists in the world at the moment. Which means that I’m looking forward to their pairing at the Stonnington Jazz Festival’s Double take series (which features two artists who play the same instrument meeting on stage), pretty much the way a toddler is looking forward to Santa Claus on Christmas eve. They will be joined by two brilliant musicians, bassist Sam Anning and drummer Hugh Harvey, a setting that leaves them ample space to fill. To my mind, this is a pairing of yin-and-yang-like perfection; on one hand, Julien Wilson’s full-bodied tenor sound, round, massive, but never heavy, like a cloud forming in a clear blue sky; on the other, a succession of circles and angles flowing out of Angela Davis’ alto, her phrases coming at your face from all directions, like scattered rain. I’d continue with the bad metaphors, but it’s best to leave the artists describe this project themselves. What follows is a heavily edited version of a messenger chat we recently had.

So, who initiated this?

Julien Wilson: Ange was asked to do the gig and invited me. We’ve only played together in much larger groups so I’m very excited to play together in such an open setting.

Angela Davis: I invited Julien quite simply because he is one of my favourite saxophonists in Australia (if not the world). I greatly admire the beauty he injects into his improvisations, as well as his lyricism and rhythmic drive. He is uniquely himself, always.

JW: I tried being someone else. It didn’t work out.

AD: While we are both very different players, I think we both are similar in the fact the we like to approach improvisation with honesty and aim to be ourselves at all times. We are also both drawn to the same kind of repertoire and inspired by similar artists.

What are you going to play?

JW: We’ll be playing some originals by Ange and me inspired by some of our inspirations and mentors, particularly Lee Konitz, who Ange studied with, and the great Bernie McGann, who I shared the same stage with at the same festival about six years ago, also with Anning.

I love the names Konitz and McGann in the same sentence.

JW: Where they belong. Along with my teacher, the criminally underexposed Barry Duggan, also a friend and contemporary of Konitz and our own Bob Bertles.

I suppose the theme is inspiration and musicians who have inspired us. Ange has chosen a tune by Joe Lovano which is dedicated to Charlie Parker, but based on changes to a Miles Davis song. I’ve got a new blues which is inspired by Coltrane’s ‘Blues to Bechet’, but ended up sounding more like Monk. Ange has a new one called ‘Broady Bird Blues’, which I assume is dedicated to her new neighbourhood. Ange also picked a wonderful song by Bill Frisell who has always been a huge inspiration to me.

Julien Wilson holding his saxophone
Julien Wilson | image Gerard Anderson

What is the most challenging part of working together?

AD: Can’t think of anything challenging… Jules?

JW: I think the biggest challenge, as always, will be just leaving enough space. I don’t mean to interrupt. I just get really excited when it sounds and feels great and want to join in. Really, I think the format with just drums and bass is really open and exciting. Without chords there’s room for the saxophone to play an accompanying role or add a running commentary or play a support role if you will. Hopefully I’ll be able to do that without stepping on any shoelaces. As saxophonists one of the biggest problems in music is that we have to spend so much time not playing, while the other kids have all the fun. The other problem is that we tend to overplay and add the equivalent of chatter in the background. Walking that line is an aspect of improvised music that has always held immense interest to me. The blurring of established roles. Playing a front line instrument, but NOT soloing. Making the foreground the background. Supporting the music without taking over. I think we may need a secret code so Ange can tell me to get the hell out of the way if I’m driving in the middle lane too much.

AD: Yes – I agree, there is a lot of room for creativity in this setting in terms of our roles within it. We’ve never performed with this particular line up before so we’ll definitely be on our toes in terms of listening and reacting. At the same time – Ive played with Jules before in different settings and Hugh and Sam are both in my quartet. So there’s a lot of in built trust there already.

JW: Hugh is in MY quartet! Do we have to fight about who’s drummer he is?

I’m also in Sam’s band, and we’ve played in so many groups together, it really feels like homeground advantage. Fortunately, the concert has been correctly billed as a meeting session, not one of those horrible cutting contests. And neither Ange or I have anything to prove, to ourselves or each other.

So, if this project has a statement to make, what would that be?

JW: Considering all the madness that’s going on in the world right now, I think it’s enough to just hope to enjoy making some beautiful, creative, conversational, cooperative music together with as little predetermined agenda as possible.

Which tune best describes your current state of mind?

AJ: This is the first track I put on this morning

JW: Brilliant. All you need is love… and also this.

Stonnington Jazz Festival presents ‘Blow That Horn: Angela Davis meets Julien Wilson’ on Saturday 12 May at Chapel off Chapel

UPDATE: Here is what you missed if you didn’t make it.